In my last post on the Wonder Woman animated movie, I talked a little about how I felt the film wasn’t very comfortable with femininity. I was thinking about that a bit more, and it struck me again how very few female characters WW meets, and how much that tilts the movie. Basically, WW runs into a little girl who is being prevented from playing pirates, and the sexed up Etta Candy who is ickily dependent on men and on her own sex-kittenish charm. Neither of those two characters is on screen for any time at all, really. So what you’re left with is Amazons (who are tough and manly for the most part) and guys like Steve Trevor and Ares representing man’s world.
As I suggested in my earlier post, this isn’t the way things worked in Marston, where WW was always surrounded by female characters, both Amazon and human. But it also wasn’t true in what I think was probably the (distant) second best take on the WW character; Geoge Perez’s run on the series. I talked about some of my problems with that run here. But the one thing Perez really did right was to have lots of female characters. Etta Candy as a loyal, courageous, slightly older and still chunky military career woman; Julia, a late fiftiesish Greek scholar; her (Kitty Pryde-influenced) teenaged daughter Vanessa; Myra, the quite-but-not-entirely head of an advertising agency…they were all interesting, well-developed characers, with distinct personalities and (even more rarely for super-hero comics) body types.
What was especially nicely done was that Diana was, if anything, *more* interested in these woman than she was in Steve, or in men in general. And she found them interesting not only because they were sisters, or similar to her, but because they were *different.* There’s one line where she comments that Etta is as thick as two of her…but it’s not a dis, she’s fascinated. Perez doesn’t make Diana actually fall in love with any of the women (or with anybody, for that matter), but the excitement at strangeness she feels is a close analog, I think, to romantic excitement — the sense of difference, or unknowability, which is part of what makes love exciting.
You get just a touch of this in the movie, when Diana first sees the crying child and starts to talk about how there are no children on Paradise Island. But it’s pretty much dropped to focus instead on her relationship with Steve — indeed, the whole interaction with the girl seems more about getting Steve a couple of good quips and developing the Diana-is-disillusioned-with-man’s-world meme than it is about exploring Diana’s relationship with kids. Whereas, in Perez, Diana’s relationship with the teenaged Vanessa is a big part of the series — much bigger than her relationship with Steve Trevor, who is more of a marginal character.
Perez seems to have figured out something that the movie didn’t — which is that Wonder Woman goes to man’s world not for men, but for women. Steve Trevor always had a “well, there has to be a romantic interest” afterthought kind of feel; it was WW’s interactions with women that really had some oomph behind them for Marston.
Trina Robbins has an interesting article about WW in which she argues along similar lines:
Girls have needed, at least in their fantasy lives, a safe place to be with other girls, where they could express themselves without being threatened by boys. British girls’ magazines seem to have recognized this need. In my study of four British girls’ magazine annuals, from 1956, 1958, and 196325, I found comics in which the protagonists, usually students from all-girl schools, interacted with other girls, and any male in the stories is usually a villain. In a typical story from 1958, three school girls dress up as “The Silent Three,” in hooded robes and masks26, to help a younger girl whose dog has been stolen by a wicked man, who hopes to use the dog to retrieve a hidden paper that will lead to treasure.
In “Staunch Allies of the Swiss Skater,” from 1956, two British schoolgirls, vacationing in Switzerland, befriend a young Swiss ice skater, buying her a dress to wear for a skating contest. When the girl’s cruel uncle locks her up, forbidding her to enter the contest, they free the girl and find a paper proving he is an impostor, masquerading as her dead uncle “to steal the legacy her mother left her!” One of the contest judges knew the real uncle and would have recognized him. In the end, a British girl hugs the skater and says, “Your troubles are over, Odette dear. You’re free – free to skate!”
American girls’ comics from that period are very different. Instead of the sisterhood themes of the British comics, the American comic stories usually revolve around the theme of the eternal triangle — two girls, one of which is the protagonist, fighting over the Token Boyfriend. Patsy Walker and Hedy Wolfe fight over Buzz Baxter, Betty and Veronica fight over Archie Andrews, and so on. In the women’s community of Paradise Island, girls did not have to have boyfriends; they could be “free – free to skate!”, or free to be themselves and to interact with other girls.
Obviously, and as Robbins notes too, there are lesbian implications here if you want them. But whether or no, the decision in the movie was to make Diana’s most important relationship be with Steve — and Hippolyta’s most important relationship be with Ares actually — it’s because she is spurned by Ares in particular that she closes the Amazon’s off from men for 100s of years, as opposed to other versions of the story, where the personal betrayal (by Hercules, not Ares) is much less emphasized. Men just take up a lot more emotional space than seems warranted in a Wonder Woman story, basically. Perez figured out a better balance.
Before I leave the wonder woman animated movie forever, I wanted to acknowledge this post at Comic Fodder. Ryan has a couple of thoughtful comments.
Noah Berlatsky live blogged his viewing of the Wonder Woman movie, which I think is kind of a bad idea. Going MST3K on any movie is pretty easy and gets you in the mode of “what can I make fun of” rather than any actual critical analysis of the darn thing. And in your riffing, you can wind up saying really stupid things about how people from the South must hate Abraham Lincoln.
After live blogging, he did post a fairly strong rebuttal to the movie, which i found far more readable, even if I don’t necessarily agree. But he DOES offer up a thoughtful sort of challenge to the filmmakers as per how they could have handled some of the sequences. I’m not sure he noted that the film was actually directed by, voice directed by (and had input from Simone)… all women. That’s not to say women can’t fall into the same traps as male directors, but it does make one pause when considering some of the accusations lobbed the way of the movie.
As far as the Steve Trevor thing: Overall, and on reflection, I think it was actually a nice move by the movie to have the main character be a southerner and not comment on it overtly. So…not my best moment. Apologies.
As far as the movie being made by women…I didn’t look up the creators names, though I assumed it might be a possibility.
Obviously, it’s somewhat problematic for a guy to go around telling women they’re not sufficiently feminist. But then, to go back and say “oh, it’s all right now that I know they’re women!” would be pretty condescending. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t…so I might as well just stick with my original assessment: it still seems like a movie that raises its feminism mostly to cut it down, which is way too kind to its frat boy main character, which generally is dumb and even dishonest about gender issues, and which is quite uncomfortable with femininity.
Update: I’m starting a reread of all the Marston Wonder Womans; first one in the series is here.